Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The bath: from functional to fantastic

The New Architecture throws open its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine. 

Instead of anchoring buildings ponderously into the ground with massive foundations, it poises them lightly, yet firmly, upon the face of the earth, and bodies itself forth, not in stylistic imitation of ornamental frippery, but in those simple and sharply modeled designs in which every part merges naturally into the comprehensive volume of the whole. 

Thus its aesthetic meets our material and psychological requirements alike.

— Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus, 1925

This was especially true in the bath, which Gropius limited to the bare-bones basics and confined to the bare-minimum galley space it needed to meet his family's fundamental needs. These baths in Gropius' 1938 house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which he designed as his residence when he was professor and later dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, show how the industrial aesthetic of his Bauhaus School does meld into a unit. The consistency of black linoleum, chrome metal, white porcelain and curved edges forms the bath as a purely functional but adequately comfortable place to get in, get clean, and get out. For a "stylistic imitation of ornamental frippery" would tempt people to linger longer in the loo, captivated by the cosmetic eyeful, keeping other people waiting.

Photo by Cliff, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Frank Lloyd Wright had a similar idea for the baths in the Usonian Houses he designed as back-to-nature, back-to-basics homes for his less well-to-do clients. This bath at the 1941 Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia (for which Wright reduced his fee when the construction costs jumped), is also reduced to functional and spatial essentials. But the added touches of red brick, Tidewater red cypress finished in clear wax, and a concrete floor painted in Wright's trademark Cherokee red (radiant-heated by hot water pipes) give the space a warmer, friendlier, more nature-calming experience than the antiseptic, metallic impersonality of Gropius' lavatories. Yet Wright's finishes are still simple enough not to tempt the eye to gawk at the beauty, follow the details-within-details, and detain the bather.

Back to nature?
Sadly (or happily?), today's baths snub the Masters' minimalism to become comfort castles overflowing with enough eye-grabbing aesthetics and body-bounties to make you never want to leave the lav. 

Yet some still want to feel natural, like this one, which flaunts the knots in its pine, the beams in its ceiling, the stones in its stairs and floor (and fireplace!), the wood-finish in its water-jet hot-tub, and the calculated window-view of evergreens and mountain ranges to make your bathing experience seem back to nature — though Mother Nature has fooled you this time by not providing these materials for free like in days of old. For the chandelier gives away the wealth spent on this, as does the gas fireplace that warms your towel-down after you (finally) get out of the tub.

Photo by Don Cochran, courtesy of Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates
Abraham Lincoln could never dream of this kind of log-cabin luxury, which gives the rich the illusion of roughing it. 

Here the logs are more ornamental than structural and functional, never letting you lose sight of the "natural" wonder of those ringed cross-sections, hatchet-hews and bark-scars as you water-jet yourself soft and clean in the soaking tub, which is simply crafted so as not to distract from the subdued natural effect. 

The variegated brown floor and shower tiles continue the woodsy, cavernous feel into the shower, but in a way that removes you further from Lincoln's struggles for survival, especially when you step into the shower's vast glassed space and turn on the massaging showerheads and steam-jets.

Photo courtesy of
Here's an attempt to reconcile Wrightian naturalism with Gropian functionalism. 

This bath combines the rustically erratic stacked fieldstone of the former (making rock's natural contours your steppingstone to your bath!) with the factory-processed glass block of the latter. 

The conventional floor and wall tile smooths out the composition as a mediator between these nature-vs.-machine polarities while providing a compatible contrast of its own: good old black-and-white.

However, opposites do have commonalities here. The wobbly texture of the glass bricks is simpatico with the rugged roughness of the stone, and the grays of the aluminum and the stones do jibe agreeably. And the common theme of the grayscale throughout the bath is the ultimate unifier here.

Photo courtesy of
This takes the stone a step further, organically evolving the tub and shower out of existing ground-rock, bringing them back to their tidal-pool and swimming-hole roots. The wood-plank ceiling is a fine curvilinear complement to the contours of the rock-tub, keeping the scene natural and fluid, like the water and the rock it shaped over eons.

Photo courtesy of
This bath "rocks" with nature, reframing the shower as the rain and the waterfall that were its origins. The stacked stones evoke nature's erosion of ancient ruins. The nature views (through one-way glass, hopefully) bring the real thing into the picture, so "it's like taking a shower in Ireland," as Irish Spring Soap jigged on the radio in the '70s.

Photo courtesy of
Totally dissolving its picture window, this one brings us one step closer to nature, the way it "throws open its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine" even more than Gropius' baths could do — to the point of giving the bather the ultimate "public bath," hence a risk of embarrassment upon emerging from the tub should hunters or horseback riders happen to approach from afar. 

The white porcelain bowl-tub theme repeats itself admirably as twin bowl-sinks designed to appear detached. The knotty wood vanity brings more nature inside, while the mirror-doors on the medicine cabinets expand the effect of the box-burst into "light, space and greenery" of nature beyond the galley confines of the bath.

The result is a balanced compromise between nature and manufacture, neither one upstaging the other.

Simple and sharp
Gropius' vision of "simple and sharply modeled designs" can go beyond the pragmatic into the stylistic, as this combo of clean lines, rich textures and curved forms shows. Frosted sea-green glass, woodgrain veneer, Carrara marble and pearly-white porcelain calmly complement the soothe of the bath, contrasted by the big-city vibrancy of the view.
M Lab-The Country Home,
Linc Thelen Design,
In fact, simple sharpness is transcendent to many styles, from a modern contrast of tinted glass membranes with solid wood planes (left) to classic subway- tile walls where a clean glass-and-metal framework emphasizes the grout lines.

'Ornamental frippery'
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
Compare that to these showers of excess: classical columns, relief carvings, silken swags, frilled pleats, milled panels, marble floors and light crystals make up a 'plumbing plus' spectacle only Gropius and Wright would want to get out of.

A fine line
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of
By contrast, these baths do as the Victorians did: tone down the trim for just enough elegance to confirm your standing in society but not so much visual detail as to tempt you to wear out your welcome in the washroom and keep others waiting. 
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